PENNING: With rising costs, is TV still worth it?

It may seem odd, but occasionally lately I long for the days of low-tech TV.
Mar 14, 2013


If you’re old enough, you may remember those days. You had to actually walk up to the TV and physically touch it, turning a dial, to change channels.

This wasn’t much of a challenge, since there were only three or four channels. The only difficulty may have been fiddling with the tin-foil “rabbit ears” you scrunched on the antenna to improve reception.

Why would I long for those days, you ask? Three reasons: Free content. Better content. Uncomplicated.          

First, let’s talk about price.

I’ve read several articles in the past few months that state the obvious, but nevertheless were shocking to see it spelled out. We pay a lot for TV these days. Too much, in my opinion. As one article pointed out, there has been a 167 percent increase in what people pay on average for TV, including phone and Internet bundled in, over the past 10 years. The average customer pays $128 per month for this bundle, as compared to $48 per month back in 2001.

That average monthly price seems considerably higher in West Michigan, according to my bill. It’s enough to cause me to get my underwear in a bundle, as they say.          

I recently noticed an ad for a company's bundle for $90 per month. But it’s for new customers only. I called and said I’ve been a loyal customer, so why not a discount to reward my longevity. No, only for new customers. So, you basically entice people and then jack up the price. She said something diplomatically vague and unsatisfactory. I said goodbye, and then said something precise and unsuitable for family newspapers.            

Of course, one of the reasons the cost is so high is because it costs more to create programs. And despite what you think, they don’t make TV programs just for fun — they want to make money.

DirecTV, the second-largest pay-TV provider in the U.S., noted in another article I read  recently that it expects programming costs per subscriber to increase 8 percent in 2013. So, they raised prices it charged consumers 4.5 percent at the start of this year.          

I’m not the only one starting to wonder about the value of paying for what we used to get free, magically, over the air in the era of tin-foil rabbit ears. Customers are looking at other options that involve canceling cable subscriptions and watching their favorite programs via Netflix or Hulu online.

Apple may introduce a new TV later this year that could disrupt the TV industry the way it radically changed music — people would buy one show or series (think song or album) at a time as opposed to subscribing to an entire package of channels.

The Federal Communications Commission has debated forcing companies to offer “a la carte” programming, allowing customers to pay for only the channels they want. But there are economic, legal and public interest factors that make that unlikely.          

The whole cost of TV is complicated. Entertainment companies that make the shows want to get paid for them. Telecom companies that enable us to receive and watch the shows also want to get paid. None of us want to watch ads, so we use technology to skip them, which means advertisers pay less and cable companies have to charge more to make up the difference. We’ll either have to keep paying more or see the return of ads that we are not able to skip.          

My second reason for questioning the value of what we pay for TV has to do with the quality of the content. There’s a little-known song by Bruce Springsteen called “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On).” We have more than 57 channels on most cable packages today, but I come to the same conclusion that Bruce did on many evenings. Aside from the utility of news, weather and sports, the quality of programming doesn’t seem worth the cost. There are too many tired detective and crime dramas, juvenile "reality" programming, and other fare that either seems to bore or disgust me.

My wife and I have found some shows we enjoy, but I start to wonder at the cost given the number of actually enjoyable shows.          

Finally, I long for the old days when TV was less complicated. Back then, you bought a TV, plugged it in and turned it on. Now the TV comes with a DVR or box and a book thicker than a college physics text to explain how to use it.          

My wife and I have three advanced degrees between us, but occasionally we hit the wrong button on our remote and turn off the system as opposed to just the TV. This requires several anxiety-ridden moments of button punching before all systems are normal again.

I rarely use any buttons besides power, volume and channel. I’m not sure what all the other ones are for, but I think one can launch a missile.          

I understand Apple, known for its intuitive design and sophisticated simplicity, is coming out with its own TV later this year that may revolutionize the industry. A TV that connects simply to the Internet and has a simple remote and a unit that you just plug in and go would be a huge step forward, and probably another blockbuster consumer product for Apple.          

Until that happens, I have little choice but to sit in front of my current TV, confused, broke and bored.

Tribune community columnist Tim Penning’s columns and other thoughts can be read on his PierPoints blog:



What we do here at home is have a cheap Roku box on our TV's, and we pay $8 for Netflix. Our Internet is through Azulstar (we refuse to support the cable companies or AT&T) and is simply a small 8"x8" antenna on our roof. That is $30/month. For live TV we simply have a basic OTA antenna outside (doesnt need to be some fancy 'HDTV' antenna, it is just a marketing gimmick) and the best part is, the picture from the antenna is MUCH better than the same station on charter, Comcast, or satellite because the feed is not compressed.

We have everything we could ever watch (including stuff not on charter or Comcast, like nearly EVERY episode of Top Gear U.K.), and plenty of bandwidth on our Internet connection.

Comcast and charter like to advertise their ridiculously high speeds, which actually pale in comparison to other developed nations (who charge far less than the US Telecoms), but unless you are doing intensive peer to peer connections such as complex gaming, or downloading like 50 movies at once, you will very very rarely actually see those throughput speeds with normal everyday use; they sure do advertise like you absolutely NEED that bandwidth though! With our puny little 3mb Azulstar connection, we frequently run two HD Netflix shows at the same time on our two TV's (one in bedroom, one in living room), as well as use our two iPad's, phones, and laptops. We very rarely have any slowdowns, and have never had an outage (unlike my past experience with Charter).

There are only a couple shows worth watching on Cable TV and they can be had much cheaper on Netflix. There is just so much garbage you are forced to pay for on cable that its not worth it. If they offered channels ala carte for a reasonable price I would reconsider.

Total cost per month? $38 for both Internet, and TV combined. And if there is a show that Netflix or Antenna doesn't have, and we MUST watch it, we purchase the season on iTunes for a couple dollars.


Oh, and the best part is, many of the cable companies actually throttle traffic to Netflix and Hulu to slow it down to try to steer people towards their own on-demand services (when the people get fed up with Netflix buffering, etc..).


Roku, Netflix, OTA are good options unless you enjoy watching sports. There is very little options besides satellite or cable.


i couldnt agree with you more signalmaintianer, i had the simple hd conerter for a while and recieved 14 channels with simple inside attenna, i my case att&t was ripping me off on my phone and internet, my wife wanted the old movie channels back and saw a good deal with charter, phone and internet and tv for 76 bucks a month, but i hate the darn commercials the show every 5 seconds, enough to drive you mad and the stupid reruns all day long, everyday, better off watching movies from netfix, i tell you, lol, i want the 60,s back !!!!


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